Friday, October 15, 2021

An Extinction, an Anniversary

Tomorrow is the 162nd anniversary of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. When I was 12, my family visited Harper's Ferry on one of those historic-site trips some American families do. We also went to Washington, D.C., Gettysburg, and maybe some other battlefields.

I don't remember much about Harper's Ferry from that trip, and when I learned more about it in 11th grade social studies, I think I absorbed the standard line that John Brown was a bit insane, rather than that he was correct about abolitionism. 

What should you do if there is an existential wrong being carried out by the powerful in your land? 

John Brown literally made himself a race traitor to the people who believed race is real, and that the white race is on top. He took up arms to end enslavement and all of its embodied violence.

I recently read (finally) James McBride's The Good Lord Bird, and so found out the title refers to an actual bird, which is the ivory billed woodpecker. As it happens, it was just announced that the species is now confirmed to be extinct. I also learned a lot about John Brown's time in Kansas as well as the Harper's Ferry Raid as filtered through McBride's fictional main character. 

Right now the bird's extinction and the exigency of Brown's actions are combining in my head with the "What Is to Be Done?" question of the climate crisis and climate justice. It isn't just about making a renewably powered electric grid, or even getting rid of cars (even if they are electric). As George Monbiot wrote today on Twitter,

Current climate plans are based on a mistaken belief: That, through incremental change, we can stop a complex system from crashing. But complex systems don’t work like this. They steadily absorb stress, then suddenly flip. We don’t know how close the tipping points might be.... What is needed now is sudden and drastic action to stabilise our life support systems....

Can it be done? Of course! The US switched its economy from civilian to military in a couple of months, following the attack on Pearl Harbour. And that was before digitisation made everything faster. What's lacking is not money or technology. It's political will.

The problem is the power of legacy industries, and the people who have used them to become extremely rich. Their economic power currently outweighs our democratic power. This is what we need to change.

Monbiot has published a book called Out of the Wreckage, which offers an outline of where to go, what he calls the political/economic destination: 

  • private sufficiency
  • public luxury, and 
  • politics that are much more deliberative and participatory. 

Altogether, that sounds like sharing instead of selfishness to me. I've also recently heard it called the solidarity economy.

To prevent extinctions, many of us will have to be traitors to the current status quo.

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